The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“An Atlas of the Difficult World” is a long poem divided into thirteen sections or short poems that relate experiences and observations. The sections are of varying length and are identified only by roman numerals, except for the seventh and the final ones, parenthetically titled “(The Dream-Site)” and “(Dedications),” respectively. Although in the poem the persona, or poetic voice, is often an assumed identity, Adrienne Rich’s poetic journey is enriched by personal images and observations. In this, her thirteenth volume of poetry, Rich provides readers with a mural that does not begin or end with this poem but connects with previous works dating back to 1951, when her first collection, A Change of World, was published.

As denoted by the term “atlas,” the series of poems describes a collection of American scenes that are bound together. Starting in California’s Salinas Valley, “THE SALAD BOWL OF THE WORLD,” Rich characterizes the place not only by location but also by the people who live and work in the “agribusiness empires.”

Throughout the poem, the people she describes are not famous but are always recognizable. They are, in a sense, the landscape of the American journey, which, as the title implies, is part of a difficult world. In the second section Rich addresses the central focus of the poem, looking at “our country” as a whole and alluding to social and economic conditions in the United States. The section ends with an imagined dialogue with a reader: “I promised to show you a map you say but this is a mural.” Rich responds to the hypothetical comment by replying that such distinctions are not important: “where do we see it from is the question.”

In section III Rich relates experiences and memories in the East as she sits “at this table in Vermont.” She describes past summers with her husband and children, which then connect with her own childhood. The image of her father, a Jew whose motto was “Without labor, no sweetness,” illustrates the continuity of existence that the poet conveys in every section of the poem; it also allows...

(The entire section is 869 words.)